the mask speaks

carl nilsson-polias: the wooster group, akram khan & juliette binoche


But, back in 1981, before The Emperor Jones was even conceived, the company produced Route 1 & 9, the first part of The Road to Immortality trilogy. Route 1 & 9 was greeted with a gale of controversy, partly because of its blistering desecration of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town but largely because of the use of blackface. The calls of racism and insensitivity reached the bureaucratic halls of the New York State Council on the Arts, which severely cut the Wooster Group’s funding as a result, citing “harsh and caricatured portrayals of a racial minority.”

The director of these productions, indeed the director of all Wooster Group productions, is Elizabeth LeCompte. Grey-haired, with lucid, dark-green eyes, LeCompte has a compelling demeanour that fuses a cutting intelligence with unassuming blitheness. When asked a question in a Q&A that redundantly presupposes her answer, she sees it for what it is and is curt. When asked about her upcoming work, she turns to her producer, Cynthia Hedstrom, for support or deliberately undermines herself with humour. Yet she also shows an unerring confidence in the scope of her imagination and her ability as a theatre maker when she says, of her upcoming adaptation of Vieux Carré by Tennessee Williams, that she is inventing a “completely new form of naturalism.”

LeCompte sees every performance of every Wooster Group show in order to take notes and gauge the audience response, but she claims to be uninterested in comparing her work with that of other theatre makers, preferring to watch films, musicals and “lots of television.” This ability to focus her attention on her own work combined with her steadfast sense of artistic vision and purpose might explain why, notwithstanding the volume of criticism, the Wooster Group continued its use of blackface in not just one but three separate productions.

Amidst all this offstage politics, the visual aesthetic that most clearly infuses The Emperor Jones is that of Japanese Noh theatre. One sees it in the costuming, in the gestural language of the performers and in the makeup. The character of Henry Smithers, a British trader, appears in Noh-inspired whiteface alongside Brutus Jones’ blackface. It is a deliberate counterpoint that manages to underline the use of blackface while simultaneously shifting the cultural reference points with which we view it. In other words, what the Wooster Group have done with blackface is to make it a performative, rather than a pejorative, mask.

Yet, beyond any theatrical coup de grâce that one might ascribe to this deconstructive effort, the reason for LeCompte’s initial interest in staging The Emperor Jones is less grand, though no less valid. Kate Valk, the actress who plays Jones, had appeared in blackface in previous Wooster Group productions and, in LeCompte’s words, was “developing a voice” that LeCompte thought was worth exploring—O’Neill’s text provided the perfect vehicle for a more detailed outing. For Valk, the opportunity to play behind the mask of blackface is an opportunity to be liberated as an actor, to be freed from the psychological barriers of the self and, as a result, to be fully present in the immediacy of the stage environment. Valk explains this by referring to the “two-step process of denial” that wearing the mask entails. First of all, the mask allows the performer to deny their own subjective psychological presence. Second, in then denying that the mask itself exists, the performer is able to fully disassociate the self from the situation and inhabit the stage as an other.

As with the visual aesthetic of the show, Valk’s investigation of masks is indebted to the Noh tradition. Indeed, there are videotapes of Noh theatre that play on a loop on screens that face the actors—Valk is given to watching them as a point of focus in what is, at times, a solitary stage existence. She relishes being able to randomly incorporate gestures from the videos in her performance as a way of keeping things fresh, all without the audience’s knowledge. However, to suggest that the entire show is an ode to Noh would be an unfortunate feat of elision. The Wooster Group work so meticulously on their productions and from so many angles that their work defies any such reductive suggestion of provenance. The choreography for various interludes is snatched from Hawaiian folk dances; the sound design draws on cartoon effects; the video screens present distorted low resolution images that create a deliberately damaged but exacting accompaniment to the live action.

Somehow, in all this feeding on references, LeCompte’s team of collaborators finds a distinct and unique theatrical language that, like the director, has two complementary aspects: one rapier sharp, the other playfully obtuse. The red fly-swatter that almost becomes an oriental fan, the incongruous soccer shin pads and the stage assistant who almost becomes a character all create a slightly tattered sensibility and remind us of the theatre-making. On the other hand, the technological integration, the dynamics of the show and the performances by Valk and, on alternate nights, Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos, are far from tattered.

Near the beginning of the show, Valk, in a ragged riff on a kimono, sits in an old office chair in the centre of the space holding a microphone on a black stick, wielding it as naturally as one of her own limbs, or as jauntily as a cane. The whites of her eyes, luminous within the thick mask of blackface, dart and roll, her lips and teeth stretch their moorings as she plunges her voice into a growling baritone. Valk’s virtuosity is astonishing and powerful. She is a picture of both precise stylisation and humanity limited by stylisation. The blackface that, on the one hand, causes furore and, on the other, liberates the actor is more than the sum of its parts. By casting a white woman in blackface who, so accurately, yet so artificially, recreates the stereotypical idiom and mannerisms of a black man, we see the performative nature of the character himself—a man unable to escape the hateful script dealt to him by a history of slavery, subjugation and segregation.

Across the Hong Kong harbour, two weeks later, Akram Khan and Juliette Binoche shared the stage in their self-devised dance duet In-I. To say that Binoche is not renowned for her dancing prowess might imply a dry reproach for a foolish endeavour. Yet, the truth of the matter is that it is exactly because she is not an accomplished dancer that this show even exists.

In-I sits in that realm of contemporary dance theatre occupied by artists such as Jérôme Bel (Pichet Klunchun and Myself) and, newly, Lucy Guerin (Untrained). It is not the tanztheater of Pina Bausch or Meryl Tankard, but rather a dialogic medium that investigates the gap between the physically articulate and the physically inarticulate by juxtaposing them on stage. Bel achieves this through a simple conversation, Guerin through follow-the-leader games, but In-I tries a more unwieldy and less formally clarified combination of choreography and text that butt up against each other but rarely intersect.

Binoche initiated the project after seeing one of Khan’s dance pieces. It is a credit to this artist that she so forthrightly ventures into unknown territory, but there is a sense that Khan has not fully met her enthusiasm with his own. Though Binoche does not quite achieve the extension and line that one takes for granted in a trained dancer, she executes the choreography with unceasing energy and alacrity, even as the sweat pours down her face and her hair becomes a tousled mop, defying her film star credentials. On the other hand, Khan is a performer of stoic restraint and economy, whose face is a stern glaze from start to finish. When Binoche’s arms open outwards, they do so to welcome something in with generosity. When Khan extends his, they seem to deflect and defend. Certainly, there is something of the feminine/masculine binary at work here, but Binoche’s presence is more engaged, more fluent, while Khan’s is determinedly one-note.

In the end, In-I is, as its eponymous pronoun suggests, less successful as a duet than as an insight into two very different artistic talents—the one liberated by exploration, the other troubled by the unknown.

Hong Kong Festival: The Wooster Group, The Emperor Jones, writer Eugene O’Neill, director Elizabeth LeCompte, performers Kate Valk, Ari Fliakos, Scott Shepherd, composer David Linton, video Christopher Kondek, design Jim Clayburgh, lighting Jennifer Tipton; Studio Theatre, HK Cultural Centre, Feb 18-22; In-I, co-directors, performers Juliette Binoche, Akram Khan, design Anish Kapoor, composer Philip Sheppard, lighting Michael Hulls, costumes Kei Ito, dramaturg Guy Cools; Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy of the Performing Arts, March 4-6; www.hk.artsfestival.org

RealTime issue #90 April-May 2009 pg. 6

© Carl Nilsson-Polias; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2009